Cough phlegm

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at December 15, 2015
StartSymptomsCough phlegm

A cough can be annoying, but when coughing up phlegm, it can be downright confusing. However, it can be a very annoying addition to a cold, or it can be something very serious.


Definition & Facts

Phlegm is defined as any secretion from a mucous membrane contained within the respiratory system. Coughing is a natural bodily function, and an occasional cough here and there can indeed be healthy.

A cough that has lasted several weeks, or produces phlegm of odd colors or that has blood in it, can be indicative of an underlying problem. However, a cough will not usually require emergency attention if left untreated for an extended period of time.


A cough is a sort of chain reaction that happens in a split second. It begins with an irritating substance - known as an irritant - in the throat. This irritant stimulates the nerves, and causes the nerves to send a signal to the brain. This signal is like a piece of paper that reads "I need to cough". The brain then signals different nerves, which creates the push of air that is needed for a cough.

Phlegm is created for a variety of different reasons. The most common reason someone's body would be creating an excess amount is a common cold. On an average day - when someone is healthy and happy - a body can create between a liter and a liter and a half of mucus a day, which then drips down the throat to line the tissues. It becomes phlegm as it becomes thicker.

While some may simply have thicker mucus and therefore thicker phlegm, it takes something strong to create phlegm like what is coughed up. Some of these triggers can be a terrible cold (think of the kind that leaves someone in bed for three days straight because their body is working overtime to fight it), allergies (pollen and ragweed are common), and even something like a hot pepper.

When to see a doctor

One of the sure fire signs it's time to see a doctor is when the phlegm has a large amount of blood within it. Small amounts of blood are normal when the nose has been blown, picked, rubbed, etc. often because of a cold, but it often doesn't drip down with the mucus that invariably becomes phlegm.

Another reason to see the doctor would be if the phlegm is pink, or has a frothy texture. Pink coloring can be small amounts of bleeding - which may turn into red and eventually more blood than phlegm if it's that serious. If the cold has subsided, but the cough persists, this is another reason to see the doctor.

However, the cough will last an average of 18 days when it is normal, so unless the cough has persisted longer than that, a doctor's visit should not happen. Blood in the phlegm is always a game changer, and should be watched closely. Another game changer to this fact is when the cough causes someone to feel out of breath, causes them to wheeze, or have a shortness of breath. These signs also mean that it's time to see a doctor.

Treatment & Therapy

One of the best things to do for a normal cough - i.e. green or yellow mucus coming up or a dry cough - is to wait it out. Coughs often resolve themselves on their own, and are not a large issue to the health of that person.

If waiting to see a doctor, one of the best things to do is keep a record of how often phlegm is coughed up, what color it is, and how much phlegm is there. This can help them prescribe the right medications for the cough. Drinking fluids to help thin out the mucus and make it easier to get rid of without coughing is another treatment that can be prescribed. The fluids should regularly enter the body every one or two hours, and can be a variety of things.

Tea with honey and lemon juice or warm water with the same can be helpful in loosening phlegm. Simply resting - whether it be in bed, on the couch, or on a recliner - is another way to help treat a cough with phlegm - especially if it has developed into bronchitis. For the cough, cough drops or hard candies can help alleviate some of the pressures to cough.

Taking a shower where there is a lot of steam or using a vaporizer can help as well. If none of that works, using a saline solution and a Neti pot or spray bottle is another way to help loosen the gunk. However, this option should be used with care. It can strip away protective barriers that are working in overtime when someone is sick.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

One of the best ways to prevent a cough from developing into a chronic case of bronchitis, or a chronic cough, is to not smoke. Smoking releases irritants directly into the throat and lungs, and can turn phlegm a brown color and make it gritty in texture (like pumice soap).

Allowing others to smoke in the home is also a big no no when trying to prevent a cough that has phlegm. The smoke a smoker blows out also contains the irritants, and everyone can breathe them in after they have entered into the air. A healthy diet is one of the best ways to make sure the body can handle any infection that comes its way. This means a good, balanced diet and exercise on a regular basis.

In today's busy world, this can be difficult to do. However, washing hands regularly and well - especially when sick or after using the bathroom when a sick person is in the home - is another good practice that many already use today. Something else that can be done to prevent coughs is to stay away from things that irritate the throat and nose - such as dust and pet dander.

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